Portrait

Meeting Dr Andrew Cuthbertson of CSL, developers of Gardasil. By Romy Ash.

Biotech drug scientist Dr Andrew Cuthbertson

Dr Andrew Cuthbertson has an awning of long, grey lashes above blue eyes. The lashes are unusual, thick and beautiful on a face that’s otherwise unremarkable. He’s been working since early morning. He’s watched the dawn break over parkland he can see from his corner office in Melbourne’s Parkville. On his desk is a plastic, anatomical sculpture of an eyeball. Beside his computer and without lashes, it’s ever staring.

“I feel immensely privileged. I trained for 19 years, quite seriously,” Cuthbertson says, telling me about the privilege of a Whitlam-era free education. “My first properly paying job was when I was 37. I remember I finally got this job offer in a great place in San Francisco: Genentech, which was the first biotech company. I got a job offer and I rang my mum and I said, ‘Oh, you know, I’ve got – ’

“And she said, ‘Have you got a job, dear?’ Because I was 37 years old, and she just started crying. She just said, ‘I never thought you’d be gainfully employed.’ ”

Cuthbertson is head of research and development at CSL, with a team of 1200 scientists. We’re sitting in the original CSL building. Now privatised, CSL was established during World War I to ensure access to lifesaving vaccines in geographically isolated Australia. This year it’s celebrating 100 years of operation. The building is large and red bricked, surrounded by a subtle fortress of newer buildings and security gates.

“I thought I wanted to be an eye surgeon – if I practised medicine. I was deviated by one of my mentors. A guy called Doug Coster, who was chairman of ophthalmology at Flinders in Adelaide. We were bodysurfing – and I thought I was about to become an eye surgeon – and we caught a wave and he said, ‘Why don’t you do a PhD?’ And I stood up and got the sand out of my bathers and said, ‘Yeah, okay.’ I committed to a four-year PhD in the surf, with sand in my bathers,” says Cuthbertson as he goofily motions pulling up and shaking out his bathers. It makes an amusing scene as he sits there in his pinstripe suit pants and collared shirt.

“I was a qualified doctor and, you know, feeling pretty good about myself after six or seven years, but I went back to being the lowest of the low in the lab. I actually really enjoyed that because then you felt, sort of, competent in these two fields that come together in translating the basic science into patient benefit. That was such a critical thing for me. And my bit is biotech drug development. It’s what I’ve really chosen to focus on because it brings together those two disciplines really well. And that’s really what we do at CSL – that translation part.”

The most recent, high-profile product CSL developed is Gardasil – the world’s first human papillomavirus vaccine. CSL is also about to launch “two quite distinct breakthrough products for treating people with the bleeding disorder haemophilia,” Cuthbertson explains. He says this putting his hands together in a sort of prayer, like it could all still fall apart. “Our first two home-developed – at CSL – biotech products. From the research, all the way through clinical trials, and we’re launching them now, all around the world, and that is such a big thrill. Why we did two at the same time, I’ll never understand. I don’t get to treat patients individually, but if we’re successful, we can treat patients 1000 at a time, and really affect the lives of big groups of people.”

I tell him that sounds a little terrifying, and ask if he’s ever scared doing the sort of work he does. He says, “To me, the biggest thrill, professionally, is when you first see the human data. In other words, as you may be aware, in biotech drug development there’s a whole lot of important work carried on at the basic science level, usually in collaboration with academic scientists around the world, then you do preclinical studies, and then ahead of you we have six or eight years of clinical research to demonstrate safety and efficacy – but in that whole thing, to me the biggest thrill is when you unblind the data from the first human trial.

“And I’ve got to say – I’m very anxious at that time – first of all you want to know that you haven’t caused harm, and that I get very anxious about – and you want to know that the thing’s worked, you’ve invested years and, you know, a huge effort. I can tell you when it doesn’t work it’s devastating – absolutely devastating. In science you have to be very robust, because most of the things you do don’t work. There are some fields where you get much better instant gratification from your training or your skills. The 10 or 15 years it takes to develop a new vaccine, or a new biotech development – it can fall over at any stage and they usually do. So you have to be strong. It’s more a marathon.”

I ask Cuthbertson whether, growing up in Melbourne, he’s always liked museums. His work, after all, is part of a show on biomedical breakthroughs about to open at the Melbourne Museum.

“Of course,” he says. “I was very nerdy. I loved museums. During my medical studies, I did a year of medical history studying the mechanism of human facial expression in painting, which didn’t… I don’t use that much today. I can give you a copy of my book. I wrote a book about it. It sold about four copies. Cambridge University Press were kind enough to publish it.”

He smiles, laughs at himself, and runs his hands through his hair.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 27, 2016 as "Drug addition". Subscribe here.

Romy Ash
is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.